How times have changed. Just three years ago, when I first wrote in delicious. about wild garlic, I remember going crazy trying to find some and turned to the internet. Back then, just about all one could find on Google was instructions on how to eradicate it from dairy farms in the USA (it taints the milk if the cows eat too much of it). It’s a different story now. Most search engines will direct you straight to any number of scrummy recipes. Why? Because wild or – to use the trendy terminology – foraged food is so fashionable.
Not that wild garlic takes much foraging. If you pass by any bit of British woodland in the spring, chances are you will catch its scent on the wind. The first time this happens, it can be mildly disconcerting. It seems strange to smell garlic miles away from a kitchen.
Allium ursinum, aka ramson, jack-by-hedge and ‘bear’s garlic’ (so-called because bears eat it after hibernating to get their digestive tract back into gear) is a perennial, as hardy and fast-growing as chives. It tends to grow in woods, often near or among patches of bluebells. First come the luscious and drooping leaves – which can form a dense canopy over the forest floor – then a burst of white flowers indicates the end of the growing season.
The plant self-seeds and dies back. It is edible at all stages of this growth but, unlike domestic garlic, it is the leaves, rather than the bulbs, that are prized. The bulbs are delicious, too, but very small and fiddly. The leaves and flowers make a great addition to salads or – as they have traditionally been used for centuries – as a garnish for cheese sandwiches. In fact, some Cornish Yarg cheeses are wrapped in the leaves as they mature, giving them a tangy, garlicky edge.
The taste of wild garlic leaves is very similar to the domestic bulb, but not quite as hot on the palate. That said, wild garlic has many (and some say more) of the same health-giving properties. If you have never tried it before, give it a whirl this spring.
Getting hold of wild garlic
Foraging for wild garlic is easy and pretty much hazard-free. Avoid lily-of-the-valley, which looks similar but doesn’t smell of garlic and is toxic. Be wary of slightly bleary-eyed and hungry grizzlies!
If, like me, you are trapped in the urban rat race then you can buy wild garlic online. One of the stalls at my nearest farmers’ market sells it by the bag for a song. It keeps well in the fridge and don’t be afraid of buying what seems like a lot, especially if you plan to cook with it. Like any green, it wilts and shrinks a lot in the heat. If you live near any Asian supermarkets, there is a leaf known as gau choi or Chinese leek, which tastes similar. After two summers of working in Devon, I missed the real thing enough to plant some in my tiny London garden, but be warned that wild garlic is as invasive as mint and should stay in a pot.
Once you get wild garlic into the kitchen, what should you do with it? While it is in season, I tend to replace domestic garlic with the heady sweetness of the leaves.
In casseroles, leave out any bulbs of garlic at the top of the recipe and wilt in the leaves at the last minute. Try adding some to a pesto or chop it into mayonnaise. It stir-fries beautifully and can be deep-fried for an interesting garnish.
There is one recipe I turn to every year when I get the first wild garlic, between late January and March. The leaves have a natural affinity with many soups, especially when you wilt them in, off the heat at the last minute. This soup is so unbelievably simple, it actually champions their flavour.